Rotterdam family day (The Netherlands)

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We arrived in Rotterdam last night and were immediately welcomed by my Mum’s cousin (P) and her family, including my great aunt and great uncle. This is the Indonesian side of my family and I am at once struck by the strength of the Indonesian culture of hospitality and good cooking. We visit Tante (Aunty) E for dinner and she has cooked up a serious storm. A storm that is enjoyed with lots of stories and laughter. It’s my second time meeting Ome (Uncle) C and Tante E but I can’t recall the first time – that was about 25 years ago at a party. It’s amazing to be surrounded by family including Mum’s cousins and their families who have also come for dinner.
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By the time we wake on our final day in The Netherlands we are refreshed and ready to explore Rotterdam local style. P and her husband (M) have kindly taken time off work to show us around their city. We came to Rotterdam for a day last year but didn’t make it past the Maritime Museum and Market Hall so we are excited to see something more of this famous Dutch place.
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The first thing that strikes me is just how important shipping is to this port city. P works at the port so she is a wealth of information. But even without that it’s obvious that the people of Rotterdam are closely tied to the sea. There’s all sorts of boats here from canal barges to luxury yachts. There’s even the obligatory sinking boats filled with water rotting away. And all of this right in the heart of the city, not tucked away out of sight in some industrial or seaside area.
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Rotterdam is also obviously a city with a sense of humour. The Buttplug Gnome is actually meant to be a tribute to Santa Clause holding a festive bell. It may have caused outrage with the far right of Dutch politics but it is still standing with no indication it is going to be pulled down anytime soon. M proudly shows it to us with a Cheshire cat grin on his face waiting to capture our reactions. Only in The Netherlands …
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We continue to explore the city on foot. P and M know all the prettiest places to walk. There’s some green space along a canal with older style mansions and churches on the opposite bank. I could walk here all day and can imagine it being lovely for picnics in the summer months. Make sure you picnic on the far side of the canal though because a tram track runs on the city side. I will miss the historic architecture of Europe when I return home.
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M points out the Pauluskerk (Paul’s Church). This famous building is a place where people who are homeless or addicted to drugs can come for help. It is located almost in the heart of Rotterdam and has an architectural design that is impossible to ignore. I like the juxtaposition of this loud building with the way Western societies like to hide the reality of homelessness and drug addiction. It cannot be ignored when a place so linked with these circumstances is so clearly identifiable.
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We walk past the casino. It looks like a modest building. I am struck by the lack of fanfare here at the entrance. And also by the museum pieces in the window. I rarely gamble putting maybe $30 a year through pokie (slot) machines a year and never buying myself a lottery or scratch-it ticket. My work colleagues jokingly tell me that this is because I am Dutch and don’t like to part with my money. P and M also joke that they do not really like to gamble either. The museum pieces are interesting though. Particularly for me as an Australian where pokie (slot) machines are a dangerous hobby that ruins many lives.
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We continue our wanderings into the city centre past the impressive and imposing Stadhuis (Town Hall). There’s a statue outside of Hugo De Groot who we first met at Loeverstein Castle where we heard the story of his escape from imprisonment in a book chest. It’s an interesting to tie our second and our final days of this trip together. The city centre is like many city centres of the world: dedicated to shopping. It highlights for me one of the concerns I have about the world and our lives in the West. I watched a video some time back about how we all believe we have jobs as lawyers, business people, teachers, bank tellers, shop assistants, cleaners, nurses and what-not. But actually, our jobs are to shop. We are merely encouraged to work so that we feel good about spending because we earn money. Because the wealthiest one percent get rich off us buying “stuff” we don’t want or need just to keep up with the Joneses or to feel happy despite our imprisonment in jobs we hate. The dedication of so much street space to retail therapy around the world is only serving to prove the truth of this to me. And I wonder how we can escape it.
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Like last year we browse again through the Market Hall with it’s gorgeously presented selection of foods. You can buy most things here from a massive assortment of cheese through to toffee apples. There’s food to take home and food to eat here. The choice is your’s. We’ve eaten lunch and know there is a repeat of last night’s massive dinner waiting for us at Tante E and Ome C’s house so just feast with our eyes.
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It’s late afternoon now and we are almost back at the car park. Our final stop is the famous cube house complex. We saw it on our way along the canal this morning but are now walking through the complex. For three Euros you can enter one of the houses. Inside the houses are larger than they look from the outside. And, yes, the floors are flat, not sloping. The design is almost a perfect use of every centimeter of available space. While it’s certainly in the style of tiny house living, it’s not cramped. It’s quite incredible really how we are so used to a certain design of house that our minds take a little while to adjust to the concept of these cubes. But I certainly think they would make fantastic living spaces, particularly with the convenience of being in the city centre.
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And so the sun sets on our adventures in The Netherlands and Belgium. We enjoy one final meal with P and M at Tante E and Ome C’s house. One final drive along the Dutch highway network to Schiphol to drop off the rental car. And a night at Citizen M Schiphol (word to the wise, check which location you have booked). Tomorrow we depart for home with a fifteen hour stop over in Guangzhou.

This trip has been brilliant. While we would have liked to stay longer, we do have some time restrictions due to us both working and wanting to earn enough to take two or three more trips this year. And we’d rather go somewhere new for two weeks than not go anywhere at all.

De Haar Castle (Utrecht, The Netherlands)

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We leave Leeuwarden to drive to Rotterdam where my mum’s cousin has invited us to stay with her family. It’s only a short detour from the highway to visit De Haar Castle. After seeing photos of its fairy tale shape online, we just have to visit. The castle is set in the countryside near Utrecht amidst the typically Dutch green grass, canals and dairy cows.
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A castle has existed on this site since 1391. As is the story with many castles, fire and war damaged the castle over the centuries. It passed from family to family and generation to generation until, finally, in the late 1800s the castle was handed down to Etienne Gustave Frederic Baron van Zuylen van Nyeveldt van de Haar. The castle was in great disrepair at that time but, fortunately for us, Etienne married Helene de Rothschild of the famous and rich Rothschild family. As a result he came into money and engaged Pierre Cuypers as his architect to rebuild the castle. Etienne and Helene have passed away. Their daughters inherited the castle but couldn’t afford the hideously expensive upkeep and inheritance tax so passed ownership of the castle to a foundation tasked with its upkeep. They still have the rights to stay at the castle in September each year.
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The castle and its grounds are so beautiful that no words are required and I’ll leave you with the photos.
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Leeuwarden (Friesland, The Netherlands)

Leo from Couch Surfing has kindly invited us to stay with him for a couple of nights while we’re in The Netherlands. He lives in Leeuwarden so that’s how we come to spend a day exploring the capital of Friesland. Our connection with Leo started after Paul put up a public trip to The Netherlands on his Couch Surfing profile. Leo made contact with us and said that if we plan to be in Leeuwarden we can stay. That’s all the encouragement we needed to make plans to be in Leeuwarden. We arrive last night after our day in Westerbork and feel instantly welcome. And it’s also a chance for us to experience a snippet of life inside the windows of the older style Dutch homes we pass when walking through cities. The kind with the large windows and high ceilings.

Leo has already left for work when we wake. He’s left us a spare key so we can come and go as we please. We decide to have something of a rest day that begins with a walk to the bakery and supermarket for fresh bread and ham. Leo has left some for us but we particularly want the experience of walking to the bakery to choose our own bread. There are so many types of fresh bread available here and we just don’t have the same choice at home (actually, the fresh bread at home is totally different to the light fluffy fresh breads in The Netherlands).
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Breakfast eaten we walk to Decathlon on the other side of the city. It’s my favourite shop in Europe. I buy roller blades that I intend to use for exercise at home. I haven’t skated in two decades but want to relearn. Roller blades are cheaper here in Europe than at home. We also buy two tennis rackets with bag and balls for sixteen Euros ($AU24) because we’ve been saying for years that we’re going to play tennis together once or twice a week. Now we have no excuse. 2017 is going to be our year of fitness and we now have toys to help us get there without making fitness a torture challenge.
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Leeuwarden is beautiful for walking so it hasn’t been a hardship to walk the 5km (3 miles) return to Decathlon and back. We stop often to take photos of life on the canals. There’s a range of boats and, as with every watery place I’ve traveled, fishermen.
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After dropping off our purchases and eating more fresh bread with ham at Leo’s house we set off for the afternoon to explore Leeuwarden. There are some museums here but we’re having a lazy day so just wander the streets a bit aimlessly, flitting from one place that captures our interest to the other.
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The city is old but also modern. The buildings and facades date back centuries but the shop fronts are contemporary. This is clearly a regular city, not a tourist town. It’s refreshing to be in a place like this where there are no tourists carrying Lonely Planets racing from one “must see” to the next. A place where the atmosphere is just normal not aimed at getting cash from our traveling wallets. Bikes are parked along the canals. Cars line the streets. And old buildings watch it all.
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Our find for the day is the PoesPas Cat Cafe (address: Noordvliet 11). We are both a bit thirsty and keen for a hot chocolate so start to look for a cafe. As fate would have it, the one cafe we pass is PoesPas. You are supposed to book but it’s a quiet day so we can enter. There are about six cats living here in this space. They are obviously much loved and rule the space. The cats walk on tables, play on climbing gyms and can also take a break by retreating to a quiet area away from the guests. It’s a cute place to stop for a while (unless you dislike cats 😉 ).

Given that it’s our second night at Leo’s house we decide to cook him dinner. We buy some groceries and cook up a Dutch dish: huttspot (carrot, onion and potato mash) with meatballs we bought from the butcher shop. Then we spend the night chatting with our host, sharing stories of our respective travels and homes. It’s the part of Couch Surfing that we enjoy the most. That and learning new recipes (we learned one from Leo last night).

New Year’s Day 2017 (Coevorden, The Netherlands)

We wake late. Breakfast is a typical Dutch feast of sandwiches topped with sliced cold meats, cheeses and chocolate sprinkles. It’s all quite delicious. The bread in The Netherlands is way better than at home. It’s fresh and there’s tens of varieties to select from the bakery. I am glad this isn’t our breakfast at home or I’d be as big as a house.

After breakfast we relax on the couch catching up on Messages from family and friends around the world. My godparents also chill reading the paper and Facebook. It’s the perfect way to start the new year.
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Around 1pm we head off to the Ganzenduik (literally translated to Goose Dive). We walk there through the village. There’s lots of people at the pond where we will be taking our icy cold plunge. The air temperature is 1.5’C and the water temperature is about 3.7’C. None of my family are joining me in the traditional New Year’s Day swim but I’m not about to miss out on the fun. I did the same thing last year but the air temperature was 6’C then.
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There’s swimmers in costume.
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My costume isn’t anywhere near as good but by coincidence the hat and bow tie I won in the present game last night match my swimming shorts, making it look like I planned my costume.
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The water is COLD!!!! But I feel alive and am glad I went for the swim. It’s fantastic fun.
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We walk back home along a canal. The German border is along the path so we step briefly into Germany before continuing our walk. It’s a good laugh. The rest of the afternoon we relax some more. I like this balance.
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But our fun day isn’t over yet. The relaxation is temporary. My godparents have reserved a table at the Coevorden Castle for dinner. I am castle-crazy so to have dinner in a castle is pretty amazing. The food tastes great and the company (my godparents and Paul) is even better. After dinner the staff let us explore the castle unguided. It’s mostly set up with various banquet and dining areas. But it’s still very much a castle.
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And then we step outside to discover it has started to snow. The only thing I’m crazy about more than castles is snow. We rug up and walk home in the snow. It’s perfect. The village is gorgeous. And it’s quite romantic … especially watching Paul speak with animation to my family. What a way to start 2017!
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Westerbork Transit Camp Memorial (The Netherlands)

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The snow stopped falling in the early hours of the morning and the sun started to melt it by the time we got up and left the house. We did still get to have some fun scraping it off the car though. I am sure that sentence sounds odd to those who live in snowy places. But for us the snow is a novelty that we never experience at home so we are like children discovering something new when we scrape it off the car.

We drive to the Westerbork Transit Camp Memorial. The camp was originally a refugee camp for Jews fleeing persecution in Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, the Nazis took the camp over and transformed the once safe-haven into part of their regime of reign of terror. Gypsies and Jews from all over The Netherlands were rounded up and sent to Westerbork for transportation to concentration and death camps further east. Approximately 120,000 people were transported through Westerbork by the Nazis. The most famous of these was Ann Frank who was among the 60,000 people transported from Westerbork to Auschwitz-Birkenau near Krakow in Poland.
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Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau, the original camp no longer stands here. But there is a moving open air memorial and a museum. The memorial is a public space that can be accessed for free by walking along paths through the woods from a nearby carpark. However, you have to pay entry to the museum, which includes access to a shuttle bus to the memorial (cars cannot travel the road to the memorial itself). The 2km walk from the carpark through the woods is pretty and (being The Netherlands) flat.
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It’s a cold and bleak day. We leave the warmth of the museum and make our way to the memorial. The first thing that strikes me are the two railway carriages. Identical to those we saw in Auschwitz-Birkenau last year the sight of these carriages fills me with a sense of the horror that awaited those who transited through this camp. Not only does it make me think of what we saw in Auschwitz-Birkenau last year but now I also think about the long journey those who were sent there had to endure. Krakow is a long way from Westerbork. What makes this memorial even more moving is the roll call of the names of all the prisoners who were transported. You could probably stand here for a whole day and not hear them all.
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Stones have been laid here to honour each of the individuals who transited through this camp. Almost all were murdered by the Nazis. Some died on the long train journeys, others of malnutrition in concentration camps, some by being shot and many in the gas chambers. Photos between the stones show the faces of Jews and Gypsies. It highlights the inhumanity that was shown to ordinary children, women and men who’s only crime was to be born into the wrong religion and the wrong place and time. The same crime committed by the Syrians and other refugees in the world today who are fleeing torture and death in their home countries.
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Large coffins representing each of the camps to which Jews and Gypsies were sent line a pathway. Each names the respective camp and has inscribed the number of people who were sent there. The numbers are too large to comprehend. All are in the thousands. Some in the tens of thousands. It’s sobering and sad.
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Leaving Westerbork we are both quiet. We’re not depressed just moved. It’s probably a good thing that it’s winter and the days are short. Heading west towards our next stop in Leeuwarden we watch the setting sun. It places a boundary on our emotions and soon we are back in the present enjoying the farmlands and golden afternoon glow. After all, The Netherlands of today is a beautiful country of peace.

New Year’s Eve in Coevorden (Drente, The Netherlands)

We check out of our hotel in Bruges and hit the highway north. We have a date with my godparents and cousin in Coevorden far away in the north of Holland near the German border. It will take us about four hours to get there. Not far by Australian standards but it will require us to pretty much cross an entire country here in Europe.

The drive is pretty. We drive through flat green farmlands where cattle graze. Villages slip by with reed-roofed houses. We cross a low rise where the temperatures are below freezing and ice crystals have dusted all the trees. Everything is white. We contemplate stopping but the ollie bollen (deep fried dough and sultana balls) are calling.
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We arrive in Coevorden just in time to walk from my godparents’ house to my cousin’s house. My cousin’s wife is cranking out the fresh home made ollie bollen like a champion. They taste as delicious as I remember from last year.
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My cousin’s kids and their friends are lighting fire crackers in the street. They are young but the fire crackers are less insane than those we will fire off at midnight. The kids are loving it. It’s our second New Year with them in a row and the kids are now talking about “Paul and Andrew who come every year”. It’s adorable.
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We head back to my godparents’ home for dinner. My cousin, his wife and their kids come too. We sit in front of the open fire chatting. There’s a year to catch up on. The kids gently correct my Dutch when I use the incorrect words or grammar. I appreciate the help.
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The kids go to bed and we play a present game. It’s odd to have gifts on New Year but in Holland gifts aren’t usually exchanged at Christmas so it makes sense. The game is a laugh. We have dice and cards that dictate what we can do with the gifts we select. Everyone has bought three gifts valued at about three Euros each. We select and unwrap gifts according to the cards and dice. We also swap and steal gifts according to the same cards and dice. Three hours pass and we end up with a selection of gifts each. It’s all random fun and we’ve laughed our guts out.
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And then it’s time. The clock strikes 12 and it’s hugs all round. Outside the fire works have begun. Last year we stood in the street where there were lots of young people but this year we’re in my godparents’ backyard. The difference is that it’s less scary and more enjoyable. There’s little risk tonight of fire works hitting us if they go wrong. And we can duck inside when it gets too cold. It’s a blast (no pun intended). We stay out in the cold as long as we can keep our eyes open and then we climb the stairs to our bedrooms (yes plural). My godparents have bedrooms for their grandkids and tonight that’s where we will sleep – each in one small child’s bed (the children are not there off course).

So ends 2016. A challenging and unsettled year. There’s been lots of fun travel. I’ve had four different jobs in three different industries. I’ve felt unsettled about the future, trying to find a way to have flexibility, income and freedom all at once. But been a good year because Paul became my husband, giving me a travel buddy for life 😉 .

Baarschot to Brugge via Valkenburg (Limburg, The Netherlands & Flanders, Belgium)

We had a plan to go to Limburg on Boxing Day but changed our minds when my uncle told us about the possibility of cycling in the limestone mines today. We already have a hotel booked tonight in Brugge but that’s okay – we’re  here and have never been to Limburg nor cycling in limestone mines so we change our plans to fit in more fun.
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We arrive early in Valkenburg so that we can take a look around before the ride. The town is absolutely gorgeous. It’s easy to see why it is so popular with domestic tourists. The town centre is well-preserved with old buildings and sections of the fortress walls.
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There’s even hills here. Small ones but hills all the same within the bounds of this flat country. It’s so pretty.
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Especially the sight of Valkenburg Castle nestled between the wooded hills.

My uncle and aunt are caught in a traffic jam so can’t join us on the mountain biking adventure. It’s a pity but we can still go and they will join a late tour. We sign in and walk down a steep long spiral staircase into the mines where our bikes await us. Helmets must be worn because the ceilings in the tunnels are so low. For once we Aussies are at a cycling advantage because the Dutch guests struggle a bit with the concept and practicality of the helmets.
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The ride is amazing. We’re way underground in a live working limestone mine. The rock here has been mined for centuries, first by hand and now by electric saw. Progress is still slow even today with each miner taking just three blocks of limestone out in a single day (it used to be one before electric saws).
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We ride about 4km (2.5 miles) in our 90 minute adventure. We stop along the way to learn about the natural and human history of the mines. Sometimes we have to duck low to pass through tunnels and other times we have to walk to squeeze through smaller spaces. It’s good fun.
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At the end of our your my uncle and aunt are waiting up top for their ride. We say our farewells, thank them for having us stay and set off into the sunset for the long drive to Brugge.
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When we arrive at our hotel in Brugge about 2.5 hours later we fall instantly in love with the town. It’s old and traditional. There are Christmas markets in two squares. There’s old medieval buildings. Horse drawn carriages rattle through the streets. And winter’s chill is in the air. We immediately decide to extend our stay from two to three nights.